News analysis: The Compact assumes human form

But will the Compact Commissioner have enough power to change things? Mathew Little reports.

In April, hundreds of voluntary organisations were given a sharp reminder of the fickle nature of their relationship with the state. The Department of Health delayed by several months its decisions on the allocation of the £17.85m Section 64 grant programme, plunging many charities into financial crises and interrupting services.

The deadlock was resolved when chief executives' body Acevo threatened legal action. But a salutary lesson had been learned. Eight years after the signing of the Compact, the agreement between government and sector to ensure fair treatment, charities were still at the mercy of officials who should - and, more worryingly, frequently did - know better.

But there are hopes that opting out of the Compact will soon become more difficult. The Compact is no longer just a 140-page document - it has been given a face in the form of newly appointed Compact Commissioner John Stoker.

"You will champion the Compact across Government and the sector by acting as an independent voice, overseeing and developing the Compact and its associated codes and bringing attention to best practice as well as that which is poor," reads the Government's job description for the role.

No more fiascos?

Based in Birmingham, the commissioner will head an office of 20 and get advice from an independent voluntary sector representative group called Compact Voice, which will be created from the Compact Working Group. It is hoped the injection of resources will enable the commissioner to stop fiascos like Section 64 before they happen.

"The commissioner is going to speak to ministers," says Richard Stone, communications officer for the Compact Working Group. "He's a figurehead for the Compact. He can go and knock on doors. There is accountability now through the Compact annual meeting, which picks up breaches and tries to rectify them the next year. But the commissioner is there in advance. He has the opportunity to intervene at an earlier stage."

Stone says the commissioner will play an honest broker role, helping to make existing regulations and institutions more 'Compact-compliant', rather than bringing in new regulations. "You're not reinventing the wheel; you're working with what's already there," he says.

But the success of any interventions Stoker does make will rely on his powers of persuasion. He will have no power to enforce sanctions on public sector miscreants and even lacks the powers of other arbitrators, such as the local government or NHS ombudsmen, to demand the release of documents relevant to his investigations or to recommend remedies.

An adjudicatory role was mooted when the creation of the Compact Commissioner was first announced, according to Louise Whitfield, solicitor with the Public Law Project, which advises voluntary organisations on legal issues.

But it has been rejected. "It's about whether there is an appropriate arbiter of a dispute and at the moment it does seem that public bodies can breach the code with impunity," says Whitfield. "The voluntary sector has to take it on the chin. Clearly, if you had a Compact Commissioner with a means of imposing remedies, that would be much more effective. And it would be in the public bodies' interests to avoid breaches."

Kevin Curley, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, believes it is important that the commissioner makes up for his lack of formal powers by force of personality. "He can only proceed by consent," says Curley. "He can't require a local authority to submit papers and he can't require its chief executive to appear before him. I think it's vital that in the early days of the commissioner, when the sector is going to looking sceptically at whether he can make any difference, he takes robust action the first time a really serious Compact abuse occurs and demands that the local authority complies with the Compact."

Curley says the commissioner should be able to "make life difficult" for public bodies to carelessly ignore Compact principles. But how?

He suggests that if a local authority has a history of non-compliance, the commissioner should see that it is not favoured in any competition for extra central government funding. He also suggests that the Audit Commission could take Compact abuse into account when deciding how many points to award local authorities under its comprehensive performance assessment scheme, which assesses local authorities on services, including social care, housing and the environment.

"Unless the commissioner can find ways of tackling poor performance by local authorities, the role will not be taken seriously by anybody," warns Curley.

- See Editorial, page 22.

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